Online Editor Vince Hempsall travels to Panorama Mountain Resort for the first Canada Cup series to include downhill adaptive mountain biking. He meets legends. Photos by Peter Moynes.
It’s a gnarly corner. A mandatory two-foot rock roll down curves into a stretch of singletrack strewn with loose stones the size of small cannon balls. The fact that it snakes directly underneath the chairlift at Panorama Mountain Resort means there’s pressure to perform for the riders dangling above. Plus, there’s been little rain these past few weeks so the dirt has dried to a dusty, sand-like consistency. Suddenly, Rich VanderWal launches into it face-first.
VanderWal has travelled to British Columbia from Toronto to compete in the downhill adaptive mountain biking (amtb) category in the Dunbar Summer Series, which is part of the Canada Cup. It’s the first time in history this class has been included in the Canadian national championships and nine athletes from Ontario, Alberta and BC enrolled. They tackled the initial race of the series at Fernie Alpine Resort a few days ago and after competing here they’ll move on to the national championship at Kicking Horse in Golden next week.
Although a veteran of flat distance racing, VanderWal is relatively new to downhill. The adaptive mountain bike he’s riding is made by Poland-based Sport-On and the geometry is such that his legs are bent and strapped behind him on either side of the rear tire. His chest is resting against a padded centre bar and his head is positioned just above and between the two front tires. When I see him jouncing over the roll down, it appears that the chin of his full-face helmet is almost making contact with his left front tire. I’m reminded of those athletes who hoon down ice slides face-first on skeleton bobsleds, except in this case there are jagged rocks and grabby roots everywhere. To compound matters, VanderWal is paralyzed from his chest down.
After the race, in which he placed a respectable fifth with a time of 8:54, I speak to VanderWal to get his impressions. He says the track was steep, technical and “I was just happy to have stayed upright.” (Because adaptive athletes usually can’t right themselves if they tip over, a tail guide follows them down in case they need assistance.) He then points out the damage done to his bike, which seems relatively superficial until he tells me that the base price for Sport-On’s Explorer model is US$15,000 and parts usually have to be shipped from Poland. He’s hoping a mechanic can help jerry rig some fixes for him so he’ll be able to ride at next week’s finale.
Adaptive mountain biking is a sport that’s very much in its infancy and VanderWal is one of its pioneers along with such BC athletes as Ethan Kreuger, Cole Bernier, Scott Patterson, and Sierra Roth as well as David Sagal from Alberta. Each of them has an intense story of hardship that they’ve had to overcome in order to be a part of the race today. For example, Patterson lost his legs in an industrial accident and Sagal broke his back in an avalanche while snowboarding in the Rockies. He was on holiday from his job as a semi-professional rugby player in New Zealand at the time. “I was in a really bad way after my accident,” he says. “I was in the hospital for four months, which wasn’t so hard I guess, but then I got home and, man, it was brutal. Sports were my world, you know?” Eventually he was introduced to amtb and everything changed. “This thing,” he says pointing at his bike, which is manufactured by Bowhead Corp in Calgary, “it’s total freedom.”
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Bowhead bikes have a different geometry than the Sport-On models because riders sit with their legs in front of them. The various rigs in the race today also differ in power: some have 750-watt electric assist motors and some have 6,000-watt ones. The motors are necessary for events like these so racers can navigate small rises in the trail: hand-pedalling over rocky sections is almost impossible. And while it may seem unfair to have a more powerful motor, it also weighs down your bike and makes it less maneuverable. The variations in equipment and the vast differences in skill levels (Dave Sagal has only been at this for a few months while Ethan Kreuger has been helping Sport-On with product testing for years) are proof these are very much the early days of amtb downhill racing.
In a way it’s appropriate the adaptive event is part of the 2021 series because “it’s symbolic in terms of the mountain community overcoming a different kind of hardship: gathering together and pushing forward after a long period of Covid uncertainty,” says Marke Dickson, Panorama’s chief marketing officer at the resort. It’s also fitting it’s happening at this resort, located 20 kilometres west of Invermere, because for the past 60 years “it’s been easy for families to get back into the big mountains here,” Dickson continues. “people can mellow out by the pool while kids bounce on trampolines and downhill mountain bikers push to the edge. Different agendas with no tension: just a shared love of the mountains.”
There’s indeed a palpable sense of excitement among the 350 racers here today given this is the first race series to be held in two years. The fact there’s a new amtb division amps the stoke. “There’s so much respect,” says photographer Niall Pinder who’s been helping with the event’s organization, “Maybe it’s because people know accidents in this sport can happen at any time…it’s so cool how the adaptive racers have been totally accepted.” It’s true. At one point this morning, the chairlift line-up wait was long because Panorama staff had to keep stopping the lift to load and unload the amtb rigs as well as the riders. One racer near the back of the line grumbled about the delays but his buddy responded that it was because of the adaptive athletes getting onto the chair. “Oh geez, I’m a dick,” was the reply, “those guys are f—– legends.”
Kamloops native Brett Tippie, one of the pioneers of the freeride mountain bike movement, agrees. He’s here as an announcer of the event, and when asked how the amtb scene compares to the one he helped establish in the 1990s, he replies, “They’re definitely beating up their bikes as much as we did,” and then breaks out his famous, hearty laugh. “Seriously, they’re all beauties though,” he continues. “They have the spirit and passion needed to help skyrocket the sport.”
One of the factors holding back the rise in amtb’s popularity is the price of the bikes, but Kootenay Adaptive is helping with that. Based in Nakusp, BC, the non-profit association rents bikes to athletes so they can get a sense of whether they like it, and then act as advocates for individuals and the industry as a whole. “When I was hired at Kootenay Adaptive I was told I needed to get the sport into the Olympics,” says CEO Mike Riediger. “You have to start somewhere and sometimes my job has me wearing a suit in a room with other people whose suits are worth more than my life. And other times I’m on a trail lifting someone out of the dirt.”
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Back on the race track there have been some exceptionally fast descents among the amtb racers including one by Kelowna’s Cole Bernier that was less than two minutes back from the overall winning time of the day in the two-wheeled race series. Another impressive run was by fellow Okanagan resident Cam Lochead. He didn’t have the fastest time of the day, but he managed to come in forth – with a finger he had broken a few days earlier.